In this context let us assume Python as an instance of interactive language (genre): a type of programming language. Python is also an interpreted language (as opposed to compiling languages) which means that the computer would directly understand your instructions. This is possible because the code is run by a third-party entity (program) acting as the interpreter that directly interacts with the computer, rendering the computational process relatively slower. Even though it is already a “programming language”, I tried to think about how basic python works “like a natural language”, partially inspired by the computational theory of mind.
So far we have the sign system which is the code, consisting of letters, also known as strings, and numbers, which are called integers. The signs on their own mean nothing to the computer, but are of value to the human interpreter communicating with the computer through the programming language. The symbols would be the various operations represented in the form of <, >, ==, !, #, “ “, and, or, not, ( ). These figures “stand for something else” particularly, an algorithmic function, operations or a comment. However do these signs and symbols translate to Denning’s definition of “stuff”, that is an important component of a representational system?
It is very clear for programmers and non-programmers alike that a software will not run if your syntax is not correct. This means following the designated rule system of structures that are allowed in the programming language. For example, to generate a sentence, you simply cannot say:
Print hello world
The computer will explicitly tell you that you have performed a syntax error.
You have to emphasize in the proper syntax with parantheses and quotations. Like this:
Python works very well with Boolean Logic. Namely, the and, or and not symbols with which you can generate multiple translations or representations of the world on the program.”The symbols and their combinations express representations of the world, which have meaning to us, not to the computer. It is a matter of representations in and representations out.” (Mahoney). Isn’t it possible to think of the computer as a representational artifact, and not merely as a symbolic artifact? Truly understanding only symbols? And that signs mean nothing to the computer? Or do those two distinctions essentially mean the same thing? How does this contradict Simon’s grouping of both the computer and human mind as physical symbolic systems?
I was glad that Denning mentioned that early pioneers in computing actively sought to distinguish information as “the meaning assigned to data”. This cleared my confusion. However, why were so many people left unsatisfied? Of course the same dataset will give way to multiple dimensions of meaning and not just a linear way of making sense of something, marking a crucial precedent for a new way of conceptualizing the “semantics of data”.
Observable features of Python for how meaning is expressed:
- Encyclopaedic levels
Abstraction (from modules)
“The symbols and the strings may have several levels of structure, from bits to bytes to groups of bytes to groups of groups
of bytes, and one may think of the transformations as acting on particular levels.” (Mahoney)
A finite set of strings (a-z), integers (0-9, and statements
- Externalized, material sign vehicles
“But in the end, computation is about rewriting strings of symbols.”(Mahoney)
Can Jackendoff’s Parallel Architecture model be applied to a programming language like Python? Why not? “Almost all have exceedingly limited capacity for simultaneous, parallel activity they are basically one-thing-at- a-time systems.” (Simon). However why does Simon call the human mind/brain a physical symbol “artifact”? Is it because we constantly use the mind as a tool to strengthen our symbolic capacities through areas such as reading, writing or even performing?
One limitation of this exercise, I recognize, is that since all of our attempts at understanding anything, say a symbolic system, generates from thought, how is it possible to accurately compare other symbolic systems to language, when we don’t have a consensual theory on the process of thought itself? So far, we are not even sure if the human mind originally thinks in terms of language or not. Or if we think in different ways in different interfaces. My final thoughts are that I agree more with the concept of a universal symbolic system than in that of a universal grammar.
- Selections from: Semiotics, Symbolic Cognition, and Technology: A Reader of Key Texts(PDF).
- Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007. Excerpts.
- Martin Irvine, “Introduction to Meaning Systems and Cognitive Semiotics“.